A psychologist reveals that the richer and more powerful a person is, the less empathy he or she is likely to have for people who are lower in status.
By Kathleen Geier / The Washington Monthly / October 7, 2013

Psychologist Daniel Goleman has written a fascinating piece for today’s New York Times about social status and empathy. It seems that the richer and more powerful a person is, the less empathy he or she is likely to have for people who are lower in status:

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.


In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

It’s not that rich people are natural-born sociopaths — although some of them certainly give that impression. Rather, says Goleman, while rich people can buy all the help they need, people of modest means “are more likely to value their social assets”:

The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

I see this in my own life all the time. I live in Hyde Park in Chicago, a neighborhood with a great deal of racial and economic diversity. It includes undergraduates wealthy enough to attend the University of Chicago, professors who live in homes built by Frank Lloyd Wright … and also a large population of working class African-Americans. I don’t own a car, and sometimes I carry heavy shopping bags home from the grocery store.

Every time I’ve schlepped along with heavy packages, someone has offered to help, a fact which never fails to move me. In every single instance, the people who offered to help have been African-American men and women. To my more affluent neighbors, in those moments, I became invisible — just as I, in turn, have no doubt failed to “see” other people in distress, as I make the neighborhood rounds. Because they’ve been in my shoes in that particular situation — carrying heavy packages, with no one to help — my African-American neighbors have empathy for me. But because they haven’t had that experience, my white neighbors don’t.

Goleman says that growing inequality and the social distance it creates may be responsible for a “empathy gap” that has led to the Republican party’s Scrooge-like politics: cutting food stamps, denying health care, etc. I don’t doubt there’s something to that, but political ideology is far more complicated than that. I have relatives whose politics are awful but whose personal behavior could hardly be more generous and empathetic. And I’ve also known people with great politics who behave like cold-hearted bastards, particularly towards their social inferiors.

But I do agree that in societies where there is more equality and less social distance, there does tend to be more empathy. That was one of the points I was making in this post. As I wrote, “[d]eeply unequal societies like ours are … breeding grounds for a host of simmering resentments, petty tyrannies and everyday sadism.” That’s because, on the one hand, you have so many heartless power plays and unthinking acts of cruelty on the part of the powerful. And on the other hand, the experience of constantly being dehumanized and robbed of one’s dignity doesn’t exactly improve one’s character. What it’s likely to do, instead, is to cause you, in turn, to dehumanize others. It is not an edifying spectacle. But it is inevitable when you create an economic system that allows people to use human beings like objects.

Social democracy, which creates more social and economic equality, can help minimize social pathologies, and maximize empathy. Another recent New York Times article suggests another route to increasing empathy: reading literary fiction. A study found that after reading literary fiction, “people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

I am always somewhat wary of these arguments about the morally improving qualities of literature. I’m wary because literature is far more than its moral content, or lack thereof. Literature is to be cherished for its aesthetic value as well — art for art’s sake, etc. If you don’t see that, you’re missing something important.

Not to mention the fact that reading the classics clearly has not done a bloody thing to improve the character of any number of people I can think of.

And yet, as I say, I am only “somewhat wary” of those moral arguments for literature, because I think those arguments basically are kind of true. One of the most basic reasons we read literature is to get a better understanding of human nature and human experience, and often but not always, more understanding results in more empathy. Educated people who don’t read literature probably are less empathetic and more socially clueless than their better-read counterparts, all other things equal. The fact that Larry Summers reportedly never heard of One Years of Solitude tells you quite a lot about the man, don’t you think?

The Times article specifically mentions Alice Munro and Chekhov as two writers who will improve your empathy. I can’t vouch for that claim, but I couldn’t agree more that everybody should read Alice Munro and Chekhov. Especially Chekhov, who I am sometimes think is my all-time favorite writer. These days, people seem to be far more familiar with his plays than his short stories, but as much as I love his plays, the short stories are his most important achievement, in my view. He wrote many volumes of them, and they are amazing.

One of the Chekhov stories I love most, “Misery,” beautifully illustrates Goleman’s point about empathy and social distance. It concerns the driver of a horse and cab, whose little boy has died. He has been driven almost mad with grief. As he drives his passengers, he keeps trying to find someone who will listen to his pain. IIRC, all of the passengers are his clear social superiors — college students, army officers, and so on. None of them pay him the least bit of attention as he desperately tries to tell his tragic story. Finally, having found no human being willing to lend a sympathetic ear, he pours out his grief to his horse.

The story is very short, and absolutely devastating. It could be updated today with few changes. Chekhov was descended from serfs and became a doctor. As a doctor working in Russia just before the revolution, he saw the whole of Russian society, from the aristocrats to the poorest peasants. He wasn’t a political writer, per se, but he showed great empathy for the suffering of the poor, and was unflinching in his depiction of the cruelties and hypocrisies of the powerful. He’s a writer for all time, but he also speaks to our time in very interesting and specific ways. Many of his stories can be found here, if you’re looking for a place to start.